Watching the Waves in British Waters

Great white sharks in South Africa, migrating humpback whales in Australia, and playful sea lions in California; the world is peppered with wonderful wildlife experiences. But did you know there are some pretty amazing animals on your doorstep?

In 2013, I found myself bouncing around on board an inflatable Rib boat heading across Loch Gairloch, in search of minke whales with Hebridean Whale Cruises. Each year there are hundreds of sightings, and having previously encountered the beautiful bottlenose dolphins of the Moray Firth in the past, I was keen to spot another species in British waters. The whales didn’t disappoint. After a little time drifting along with the waves searching for tell-tale puffs of air and watching little puffins clumsily running across the surface, a huge black back surfaced just in front of the boat. Scrambling forward for a better look, I came face to face with a curious juvenile minke whale, who proceeded to spend the next half an hour spy hopping right next to us! It was such an incredible experience, especially when combined with the bow-riding common dolphins and friendly seal we met on the way back to harbour. There’s so much marine life along our coastlines, we just need to open our eyes, and I’m so glad I did!

Over the past few months, reports having been flooding in of whales, dolphins and sharks being spotted around the UK. Just a few weeks ago, a pod of Icelandic killer whales were sighted in Scotland by Sea Watch volunteers gathering data during ‘Orca Watch’. Not too long ago, a rare bowhead whale was also seen off the coast of Cornwall, near Penzance; only the second UK sighting of the species and I’m sure an incredible sight to behold. Thought to be around seven metres long, the whale was thought to be a juvenile with the adults of the species reaching 20 metres in length. A previous sighting of a “mysterious whale” off Brittany, France was confirmed from photos to be a bowhead, and probably the same individual – only the third ever sighting in Europe. The opportunity to observe such a magnificent and rare cetacean must have been awe-inspiring, but it wasn’t the only marine species hitting the headlines. The day before the bowhead whale was seen, a 12ft basking shark was spotted in Dorset feeding on plankton, and on May 24th, five of these sharks were sighted just off a Cornish beach. There continue to be countless sightings of dolphins all over the country from Cardigan Bay, right up to the top of Scotland. There is no doubt about it, our British marine life is diverse, and there are plenty of opportunities to see it for yourself, but what exactly are we looking for?

A total of 29 cetacean species have been recorded in British waters from the gigantic 25 metre blue whale, right down to the tiny 1.4 metre harbour porpoise. Recent sightings recorded by Sea Watch Foundation reveal that in March alone, there were 145 sightings in total around the UK, including 60 bottlenose dolphins in Anglesey, 22 killer whales off Fair Isle, Shetland a humpback whale in Cornwall, and two Risso’s dolphins off Barra. Likewise, the Shark Trust reports that there could be more than 30 shark species living in our waters including blue sharks, basking sharks, angel sharks and even very rare visitors like the smooth hammerhead shark. Not forgetting the other numerous and mesmerising species – the huge dustbin lid-like ocean sunfish is a summer visitor to our coastline and can often be seen lounging around the surface and diving beneath the waves. You could also come face-to-face with the brightly coloured cuckoo wrasse lurking in rocky outcrops. I find it completely fascinating to think that we, a country some people may consider to be somewhat lacking in “interesting” wildlife compared to countries like Australia, can be home to such wonderful animals, and I for one, am keen to spot more. So how should we go about it?

Between 23rd to 31st July this year, members of the public are invited to take part in the National Whale and Dolphin Watch 2016. By taking part in surveys all across the country, we are able to contribute to the research that goes into protecting these wonderful species and it also gives us the chance to have a go at identifying them for ourselves. If you’ve had experience in whale and dolphin watching before, then by all means go ahead and set up your own watch by selecting a site near you. If you haven’t but are interested in getting involved then why not contact Sea Watch to find out more? During the 2015 event, 632 sightings were reported over the week – I know I want to be a part of this year’s watch!

There are countless whale and dolphin watching boat operators scattered around the UK, many of them with amazing records of cetacean, shark, seal and even turtle sightings. On many of these, you will be given information about what you are supposed to be looking and listening out for, like the blow of a whale as it comes to the surface or the flurry of seabirds signalling that there may be something exciting just below. Alternatively, you could invest in a guide book and have a go at watching from land. Places such as Chanonry Point in the Moray Firth, Scotland or New Quay, West Wales have fabulous opportunities to observe bottlenose dolphin activity from the shore, sometimes with better views than the passing tour boats!

If you are considering taking a boat out yourself then please remember to follow the marine code of conduct. Whilst it is always a breathtaking experience witnessing a whale breaching or a bow-riding dolphin, it’s also important to remember not to disturb or harass them as this causes stress, injury and sometimes even death. In August last year, Cornwall Wildlife Trust received over ten reports regarding marine harassment, including dolphin pods being chased. Whilst it could be said that in the majority of cases, the dolphins approach the boats themselves, there is no doubt that in certain cases harassment clearly takes place. In 2013, just two years before, up to 25 boats followed a pod up an estuary after which a young dolphin was tragically found dead. Whilst it was established that the skippers acted more out of ignorance than out of the desire to cause harm, by following a few simple rules you can be sure that both you and the wildlife are enjoying the experience.

These involve:

• Maintaining a steady speed – no faster than 10 knots if you have observed cetaceans at a distance.

• Let the animals approach you instead of the other way around, and do not chase or circle them.

• If there are other vessels close by, limit your watch to 20 minutes to avoid disturbance.

• Ensure that the cetaceans have an escape route and are not trapped between vessels.

• Avoid approaching animals with young as the young are particularly vulnerable to boat strikes.

For more information about the marine code of conduct as well as how to identify different species, please visit the Sea Watch Foundation website.

Our marine wildlife is beautiful and we don’t want to harm it.

The Great Barrier Reef and The Great Bleaching Event

Waking up to the sounds of sea birds squawking and the golden sun hovering slightly above the horizon, I found it hard to believe where I was. After travelling 10,000 miles to the east coast of Australia, I’d found myself welcoming the day sat on a pontoon at the edge of Hardy Reef; part of the Great Barrier Reef and forty nautical miles from land. After having already spent a day snorkeling amongst brightly coloured fish and the night sleeping under the stars, I was very excited to see it all again and so, after quickly eating breakfast and donning a very fetching snorkeling suit, I crammed my feet into a pair of flippers and slid back into the cool, refreshing water. Almost immediately, I came face to face with a huge shoal of yellow finned fish before heading off towards the beautifully intricate reef itself. It was amazing.

The thought of colourful fish dancing through beautiful corals is something that had always inspired me to visit Australia and to have the opportunity to see it for myself and not through the eyes of a filmmaker was incredible. However, it saddens me to read that the reef is under such threat that other people may not be able to share my delight in the future. According to an aerial survey conducted in April 2016, by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, a devastating 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef is suffering from coral bleaching. 520 individual reefs were surveyed and it was discovered that 95 percent were placed in the two most severe bleaching categories, with 99 percent identified as suffering from it. Scientists have continued to express their dismay and shock at the condition of the reef with Professor Terry Hughes, who was part of the survey, claiming that he had “never seen anything like this scale of bleaching before”. Clearly this is a shocking result and is likely to have a catastrophic impact on the many dependent marine species that live on the reef.

What is coral bleaching?

Corals are well known for their bright and dazzling colours and the Great Barrier Reef is renowned for it. However, this colour is not from the coral itself but a tiny species of marine algae known as zooxanthellae. These minute creatures live inside the coral’s tissue and provide food, contributing heavily to the energy that the coral requires in order to reproduce and develop. When ocean temperatures rise or there is a change in the water’s salinity, this relationship breaks down and the zooxanthellae leave, resulting in the coral’s bright white skeleton being exposed; hence the term ‘bleaching’. Not only do the corals lose their stunning colours, they also lose the ability to feed efficiently, and so if the bleaching incidents continue for a lengthy period of time, they starve to death. With 93 percent of the reef having already been affected, the worst damaged being the more remote and northern reefs, what could be the cause of this catastrophic event?

There are three possible culprits affecting the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef: El Nino, global warming, or UV radiation from the sun. Each of these has an impact on the reef environment. However, it is the threat of global warming that appears to be one of the most significant contributing factors. As CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere continue to rise and temperatures increase including those of the sea. As the water heats up, corals and their zooxanthellae begin to suffer with heat stress leading to the breaking down of the symbiotic relationship which leaves them exposed and unable to feed. Now, if the increase in temperature lasts only a short amount of time, in some cases, the coral are able to rebuild this relationship, and survive. However, even if this happens, they are still very likely to suffer from reduced growth and reproduction as well as an increased vulnerability to disease and death. If the heat stress continues for eight weeks or more, there is a very high chance that the corals will die.

Ocean acidification is also a very prominent threat linked to our growing emission issues. Rising carbon dioxide levels in the water means that there has been a decline in calcium carbonate, leaving MARINE AWARENESS Written by Arianne Kenworthy Keppel Bleaching Produced by Kirsten Hintner Graphic Design by Kirsten Hintner calcifiers such as corals, struggling to form their hard outer layers. As a result, when the sea temperature rises, the coral is unable to protect itself as well, resulting in yet more significant heat stress events.

If we want to continue enjoying the spectacle and beauty that is the Great Barrier Reef, then we all need to make a change to our lifestyles and reduce our carbon impact.

So what can we do to help?

Without a doubt it is important to say that we need to reduce our carbon emissions and try to keep in mind the effect our lifestyle is having upon the world around us. Six marine turtle species, 30 species of cetaceans, and over 1,500 species of fish rely upon the Great Barrier Reef to survive, and so if it were to be lost, the impact on the resident wildlife would be appalling. Of course, it is important to note that some people argue that the reef is not in as bad a state as we think, and that it’s simply suffering from stress and will eventually bounce back. As I, and many others, understand, it still means that we are having a truly awful impact on the natural world. The most recent bleaching event has been described as similar to a sunburn and that the coral will recover completely but after repeatedly being warned of the dangers of burning, I’m not entirely sure that I agree. Yes coral can survive, though it does take a lengthy period of time to do so, and yes they can be resilient but there will always be an impact somewhere down the line – whether that’s growth or reproduction or something completely different. Things do not just bounce back.

If our gas emissions continually rise at the current rate, in the next 40 years they are projected to rise by a total of 0.5 degrees C, a temperature change with potential terrible consequences. Corals can and do adapt to heat changes but over hundreds of years, not decades, and so it’s very unlikely that they will avoid the effects. It is believed that if something doesn’t change soon, the beautiful corals of the Great Barrier Reef could be completely lost to bleaching by the 2050’s. We need to take responsibility and do something to help.

If we were to lose the Great Barrier Reef then we would not only lose one of our most treasured UNESCO World Heritage Sites, we would also lose an incredibly important part of our environment. To not have the opportunity to see fish darting past, turtles gliding and groupers drifting over the intricate coral, would be a devastating loss. I’ve seen the reef for myself, and I will never forget just how stunning it was. I hope other people get to experience it too.

The world is warming and it’s time we warmed to making a difference, if not for our sake, for the sake of the wildlife around us.

Oil Slicks and The Marine World; A Sticky Issue

The little bird struggled towards the shore, her wings pinned to her side with a thick, sticky substance. The taste of oil burns her throat and she panics, unable to fly away as the ice cold water penetrates her feathers and soaks her skin. If not found soon, it won’t be long until she is overcome by hypothermia. It’s a race against time.

On the 15th February 1996, the oil tanker Sea Empress hit rocks in the middle of the Cleddau estuary, on her way into dock at Milford Haven. She began to release 130,000 tonnes of light crude oil into the sea and, despite the hard work of salvage teams, 70,000 tonnes entered the water devastating the local environment. Home to 35 sites of Special Scientific Interest, two potential European Special Areas of Conservation and Britain’s only coastal marine park, the Pembrokeshire coast, was teeming with marine life and so it was clear that the impact of this disaster was catastrophic. Seven thousand sea birds either covered in oil or dead were admitted to a makeshift hospital run by volunteers, a very small percentage of those involved. Lobster and shellfish populations were badly damaged as was the local fishing economy and the habitat of a rare breed of starfish was severely affected in West Angle Bay, one of the first areas to be hit. It was a deadly disaster.

Oil spills have a lethal effect on our environment but what exactly does this entail and do they have the same effect each time?

Well, different kinds of oils have different impacts. Light oils such as gasoline and fuel oils, for example, disperse relatively quickly. However, they are also very toxic, killing plants and animals with which they come into contact, and that can even ignite. Heavy oils, on the other hand, like bunker oils, form thick, black layers on the surface and can remain in the environment for a considerable amount of time, but although they can kill they are actually less toxic and sometimes even harden over time reducing their impact. Oil is a sticky issue. There are both short term and long term effects which vary hugely in their impact depending on a number of factors, and a good example of this is the Sea Empress disaster. When it occurred, the wind actually pushed 87% of spilled oil away from the coastline preventing further shoreline casualties, and as a lighter oil, when combined with the success of dispersants, it was relatively easy to treat and disperse. Likewise, had the incident happened a few weeks later, then there would have been a higher seabird mortality rate as they came closer into shore for the breeding season. These are all positives in terms of the prevention of an even bigger disaster, but to those affected it was no consolation.

Approximately 20,000 sea birds were thought to have been involved in the Sea Empress oil spill. For those lucky enough to be treated at the makeshift hospital, their survival rate after release was still limited to a very slim nine days, and it is thought that half of the west Carmarthen Bay population of Common Scoter duck were casualities. When a bird comes into contact with oil, a number of things happen. The bird’s feathers are coated with the glutinous material stripping them of their waterproof properties with the feathers being forced to separate and are subsequently unable to lock together. At this stage there is a real danger that the bird will suffer hypothermia. In order to rectify this, the bird may try to preen itself to remove the oil, only to ingest it and suffer from internal exposure. It’s a painful and agonising way to die and sadly birds weren’t the only ones in distress.

Other animals including the local grey seal populations were thought to be affected, and Sea Watch regional coordinator, Mick Baines, was contracted by the Countryside Council for Wales, to undertake surveys of marine mammals in the region. Despite some seals being treated for exposure and a lack of solid evidence that they suffered any direct effects, it can be presumed that they were still threatened by the impacts on creatures further down the food chain. Seaweeds were coated in the substance which left them unable to photosynthesise. Bivalves and crustaceans were contaminated as they accumulated toxins, and in rare cases, fish were also affected. Progressing through the food chain, the effect that the oil had on different species of both plants and animals varied hugely but in some cases were serious.

Twenty years later and the effects of the Sea Empress disaster can still be felt both along the Pembrokeshire coast and in many parts of the world. Oil is still evident on the affected Welsh beaches and some reports suggest that the lobster and shellfish populations are still only in the early stages of recovery. After the initial incident, workshops and training schemes were organised to make people aware of the dangers and prevention of oil spills. Emergency contingency plans were put in place, and four Emergency Towing Vessels were established around the UK. Scientific studies were organised to further understand the use of dispersants and the effect such incidents have on marine life, and whilst it has enhanced our knowledge of oil spills, more action needs to be taken globally, with statistics suggesting that a least one large oil spill occurs in our oceans each year.

One of the last major reported oil spills occurred six years ago in 2010, when an undersea BP oil-well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, releasing 200 million gallons of oil. Despite massive clean-up operations, 1,100 miles of coastline were affected and fish, birds and turtles washed up coated in a thick layer of oil. Before this there was the catastrophic Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989, where 11 million gallons of oil were leaked into the waters of Prince William Sound reaching beaches 650 miles away and killing eagles, sea otters, sea birds and cetaceans such as killer whales, two of who’s populations have not recovered.

More recently, in 2011, the Rena ran aground on the Astrolabe reef in New Zealand spilling 350 tonnes into the ocean, and at the beginning of 2016, 3,000 barrels of oil have leaked from a pipeline in Peru, threatening the local wildlife and indigenous people. Oil affects everything and everybody no matter how much or whereabouts it is spilled. From the smallest of creatures at the bottom of the food chain to those at the top, we are all affected and something needs to be done.

The remnants of oil still languish on our beaches and in our wildlife, but so does the passion of volunteers for protecting the environment, and as long as that remains something can be done. With the developments of oil dispersants and the progressive knowledge of their effects, it is hoped that more will be done towards the prevention of further disasters. However, with such high shipping traffic, it is only a matter of time before another major incident takes place. Oil is a sticky issue and we need to be prepared.

 

Image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region (2010)

WANTED: A Safe Haven For The Harbour Porpoise

Framed by a picturesque British landscape, fins slice through the icy cold water and gentle “puff” sounds cut through the crisp air. The shadows of gannets gliding through the air fall ominously onto the ocean’s surface sending shoals of silvery fish darting under the waves. As the sun sets on another day sending out streaks of golden yellows, deep reds, oranges and pinks across the sky, a colossal fluke is raised out of the water before slowly disappearing out of view into the deep blue depths of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Our coastlines are teeming with a rich array of marine life. From bottlenose dolphins and basking sharks to grey seals, minke whales and harbour porpoise. The chance of seeing them in the wild attracts huge numbers of visitors to British coastlines every year. Whether it’s taking a trip to the beach to scan rock pools for tiny creatures, to skimming the waves in a RIB searching for seals and cetaceans, the hope of catching a glimpse of marine life is an exciting prospect and so it seems pretty obvious that we need to do all we can to conserve our marine biodiversity.

So what exactly is being done?

The UK has an increasing number of Marine Conservation Zones established to protect its wildlife, geomorphology, habitats and geology. With 50 designated areas in England alone, these zones place limitations on human activity, such as fishing, in order to safeguard a wide-range of marine life. Rather than focusing upon individual species, MCZs are chosen for their biodiversity in the hope that they will help a range of nationally important species in multiple populations both recover and thrive. Special Areas of Conservation, on the other hand, do focus upon certain rare and threatened species and habitats, and are selected by the European Union Habitats Directive as part of an initiative to create a network of conservation sites across Europe. They are chosen based on how influential and significant a role they play in the protection of listed habitats and species considered to be in the greatest need of extra conservation measures. With 108 SACs across the UK, it’s fair to say that some of our most cherished wildlife, including the bottlenose dolphin, are receiving good attention. That is except for the harbour porpoise.

The harbour porpoise is a wide ranging little cetacean with populations distributed across Europe, but sadly it has no dedicated SACs in the UK. Despite being the most common cetacean in these waters, the species faces a number of significant threats including entanglement in fishing gear, underwater noise disturbance, pollution and lack of food. Half a century ago, reported widespread declines in the species directly resulted in the establishment of an international agreement within the United Nations Environmental Programme, called ASCOBANS, as well as the formation of the European Cetacean Society. In an increasingly noisy watery world, it is vital that this species receives some level of protection. So what has been done, and what will be done in the future?

Last month, a public consultation was launched by the statutory conservation agencies in the UK to obtain feedback with respect to five possible SACs specifically for the harbour porpoise in England and Wales. Whilst in the past there has been some dispute regarding the placement of suitable sites due to the species’ widespread distribution and mobility, a compilation of survey results and analysis by the Sea Watch Foundation and the international marine and freshwater environment consultancy DHI has led to the selection of five areas exhibiting a persistent high of abundance of porpoises: the Irish Sea’s North Channel, Bristol Channel Approaches, southern North Sea, West Wales and North Anglesey. The consultation split between Natural Resources Wales and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, will assess the socio economic impact each site will have upon human activity, as well as the scientific basis on which each site has been selected in order to determine the success of each one.

Sea Watch has played an integral role throughout the process of considering protected areas for the harbour porpoise. In 2000, they responded to a conservation strategy from DETR who claimed that the harbour porpoise was simply too mobile for the designation of special areas, arguing that there are indeed identifiable hotspots around the UK, and in the same year, director Dr Peter Evans was invited by the European Commission to participate in a small meeting of experts to consider potential criteria for the establishment harbour porpoise SACs. Two years later Sea Watch was contracted by the Countryside Council for Wales to analyse the three major data sets gathered for the NW European Cetacean Research Atlas, and four key areas of persistently high porpoise activity were identified, highlighting a further ten sites with concentrations but where evidence was weaker. In 2009, Dr Evans served as the marine mammal assessor as part of the European Commission’s biogeographic seminar held in Ireland, to assess progress with SAC designation for states bordering the Atlantic. A few years later in 2011, Sea Watch was asked to make a case for the harbour porpoise to the UK government by WWF, which resulted in the identification of six areas for possible SAC designation, and five others recommended for further search efforts.

Most recently, at the latter end of 2013, Sea Watch was approached by JNCC to analyse data alongside DHI, the result of which was the recognition of the five areas proposed for the conservation of the harbour porpoise currently in consultation.

Locating and securing appropriate SAC sites for the harbour porpoises is a challenging concept. Their widespread distribution and high level of mobility can pose problems in terms of identifying appropriate areas of significant size and importance to the species. However, the recent steps taken in appointing such locations is huge in the world of conservation. They may already be a European protected species requiring strict protection but having purposeful SACs created solely to help conserve the harbour porpoise means that their most critical habitats are also protected, an incredibly important aspect in their long-term survival. The public consultation ends on the 19th April 2016, and once all scientific evidence and responses have been submitted for each site, the decision will be made whether or not the candidacies are put to the European Commission. Let’s hope that it’s a success. The UK is lagging behind our European maritime counterparts, and it’s time we caught up!

Spotting harbour porpoises in the wild can be challenging but worth it. Allocating SACs for the harbour porpoise can be challenging but worth it. Many things worth doing can be challenging but worth it, and stepping forward in the conservation of such an intriguing species certainly is.

 

Image: Erik Christensen (2009)

Plastic Pollution and our Oceans

It is pretty much guaranteed that at some point in your daily life, you will come into contact with plastic. You may find it holding your cereal in the morning and wrapped around your sandwiches at lunch time. It could be used to carry your shopping home or hold drinks in the fridge. The use of plastic may seem to be secondnature to many of us now but sadly its convenience is at a price. The results of an international study have shown that there is now enough plastic to wrap the earth in a layer of cling film, with around five billion tonnes of it produced since the end of the World War II – a significant amount with a significant impact. With the 5p bag charge recently introduced in the UK, the issue is certainly being highlighted, but what is the true cost of plastic bags on the marine wildlife world?

In terms of quality of life and survival, the answer is expensive. A recent study conducted by the environmental organisation ‘Ocean Conservancy’ has indicated that whilst abandoned fishing gear poses the most significant risk to sea life, coming in close second is waste pollution in the world’s waters. The media are consistently littered with reports of wildlife caught in abandoned plastic bags, tangled in neglected six-pack rings or discovered with stomachs full of discarded bags. In 2013, for example, a young dolphin was rescued by a group of fisherman off the coast of Sao Paulo in Brazil after becoming entangled in a plastic bag. Struggling to stay afloat and clearly in distress, the calf appeared to be thankful when the fisherman carefully lifted it onto the boat and untangled it before placing it back into the water. Likewise, in 2015, a melon-headed whale was found dead on a Florida beach, and when a necropsy was carried out, a large bag was discovered blocking the animal’s intestinal tract. And beaked whales like Cuvier’s beaked whale frequently are found with a lot of plastic objects in their stomachs. Last summer an endangered Olive Ridley turtle had to have an object removed from its nose which turned out to be a plastic straw; and in Australia, the Taronga Wildlife Hospital has been inundated with Little Penguins all requiring treatment for injuries caused by plastic. Plastic pollution is not species specific. It can harm any creature that comes into contact with it and is clearly an increasing issue.

It is important to note that it’s not only large pieces of plastic damaging the environment. When broken down by UV rays, wind and wave erosion, these large fragments break into smaller and smaller pieces until they become microscopic. These tiny pieces are then ingested by creatures like krill, which sit at the bottom of the food chain, and the plastic subsequently progresses up the food chain, increasing in toxicity through the process of bio magnification. This means that whilst marine life is being harmed, we are too, and with very harmful consequences like cancer and reproductive developmental issues, it is certainly something that needs to be addressed. According to reports, at the rate we’re going in the production and disposal of plastic, by 2025, it is possible that for every 3 tonnes of fish there may be 1 tonne of plastic. From the bottom of the food chain to the top, each and every one of us is and will be affected.

In order to help tackle this ever-growing problem, scientists at the Imperial College in London have invented a device to help filter debris from the water. By attaching a number of “V” shaped barriers to the seabed using a screen suspended below, they hope to trap plastic caught in the ocean currents which will then be funneled to a platform where it will be stored until it can be removed for recycling. In addition to this, a pair of surfers from Perth, Australia have designed a floating rubbish bin designed to catch not only plastic debris but also detergents and oil on the surface. By placing the devices in sheltered marinas and harbours, the natural ocean currents trap the pollution which can then be filtered out through a water pump and removed without trapping or harming any marine life.

There are many people working hard to reduce our synthetic effects, and so, on a more personal level, what steps can we take in order to reduce our plastic impact on the environment? It’s simple, follow the 3 “R”s:

REDUCE: In order to prevent more waste entering the oceans, it’s important to reduce the risk by cleaning up our beaches. Why not attend one of the many beach clean-ups around the UK, or maybe organise your own?

REUSE: Every day we come into contact with plastic on a regular basis and whilst some of it may be recycled, unfortunately some of it cannot. Instead of throwing used plastic away, finding other uses for it can be a fantastic way of limiting its effect on the environment.

REFUSE: Charging 5p per plastic bag is certainly a step forward in terms of reducing the amount of waste entering our oceans, but straws and bottles are also responsible for many needless deaths in the world’s waters. Instead of cheap plastic straws, why not switch to biodegradable paper straws instead or refuse to use them altogether and take your own bags to the supermarket!

Plastic pollution is having devastating effects upon marine species – entanglement to inhalation, ingestion to consumption, from the tiniest fragments to the largest pieces; every bit of plastic entering the water has a catastrophic consequence. Something needs to change and if that means spending that little bit more on a bag for life, go for it. It could save a thousand lives!

Image: Chris Jordan (via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters) (2009)

Shark Control and the Struggle for Survival

Heart pounding and fins thrashing, the dolphin twists frantically trying to escape the hook embedded deep inside her abdomen. Unable to help, her mother circles her desperate to try and save her baby who is now blinded in one eye by the constant friction of the drum line chain. There is nothing she can do. Her baby is just one of thousands of victims of the Queensland Shark Control Program and it’s time that something changed.

In 1962, the Queensland Shark Control Program was set up; its creation fueled by the numerous and fatal shark attacks along the coast-line. With 30 nets and 260 baited drum lines along the coast line, the program is designed to catch and kill any actively feeding and resident sharks which may pose a threat to the public and in doing so, reduce any human-shark incidents. However, in their attempt to eradicate one problem, it seems as though others have inadvertently been created.

According to figures released by Sea Shepherd Australia, since its establishment the SCP has reportedly caused the deaths of 103,000 marine animals, 53,000 of these classified as by-catch. This means that many animals which do not pose a threat to humans, including many species of sharks, have been killed unnecessarily, trapped in nets unable to breathe or hooked on baited lines sometimes suffering for hours. Not only is this catastrophic on an individual basis, it is also devastating to the whole marine ecosystem.

Between 2009 and 2014, 406 non-target species died due to entanglement. Out of these, 76 were dolphins, some of which are listed as vulnerable or near threatened like the snubfin dolphin and the Australian humpback dolphin. As these species take years to mature, this is having a serious impact on populations, some of which are very small. Likewise, the dugong population is also facing a significant threat after having lost 689 individuals since the project began as are turtles, who have seen a loss of 5,044; 33 of these have been the endangered hawksbill turtle. In addition to these shocking losses, humpback whales have been found entangled in nets along the Gold Coast which is part of their annual migratory route and an Antarctic minke whale was discovered drowning, weighed down, with people unable to rescue it.

Sharks are also suffering. Catch data from 2001 to 2013 have revealed that out of the 6,250 sharks caught on drum lines, 89% were less than 3 metres long so less than likely to pose a threat to people and 97% were at risk according to the IUCN. Only four species of shark are released if found alive – the grey nurse, tawny, zebra and whale sharks, and even then there is no guarantee that they will survive. Along with other sea life, some are simply too traumatised or injured to make it through.

All these examples show that many species are being caught up in a system which is having a much higher ecological impact than many people are aware of. With claims that the decrease in shark attack fatalities cannot be clearly linked to the installation of drum lines and nets in Queensland and with shark control programs in New South Wales and in Western Australia impacting upon marine life in those areas as well, there is significant doubt as to whether this loss of life is truly worth it.

So what can be done to help reduce the impact on non-target species?

The official Queensland Shark Control Program website states that for the past five years, research has been conducted into reducing by-catch whilst maintaining the shark deterrent aspect. This has involved the establishment of Marine Animal Rescue Teams (MART) who are trained and equipped to release marine animals trapped in the nets as well as volunteer marine spotters posted in high rise buildings along the coast. This, along with a shark hotline, various assessments of the nets and baited drum lines and advances in acoustic deterrents for cetaceans, has seen some improvements in terms of animals caught and released. However, one of the most promising prevention methods appears to be the Eco Shark Barrier, independently created by Craig and Leanne Moss.

Trialled in Western Australia’s Coogee Beach, the Eco Shark Barrier is made of a strong and flexible nylon, which creates a shield from the seabed to the surface. Rather than aiming to catch and kill sharks in the area, as the current shark program does, the barriers simply section off the beach without causing any harm to marine life and to date, no by-catch has been recorded. With openings measuring 30cm, any marine creatures smaller than this are able to swim freely through the barrier whereas the larger animals simply find themselves unable to pass through without the risk of entanglement. It has been praised for creating a marine life haven with fish and crabs having been spotted using the barrier as an artificial habitat and dolphins have been seen swimming alongside it, a clear indication that they are able to locate it.

In addition to these successes, a recent study has shown that 75% of beach visitors questioned said that they were more likely to swim there with it in place and many people have visited to see the marine life it has attracted. Instead of fixating upon the threat that the sharks may pose, the Eco Shark Barrier focuses upon the preservation of both human and marine life, refusing to raise one’s importance higher than the other and it is truly promising in the protection of our marine ecosystems.

Whilst there are currently concerns about the barrier in terms of cost, along with other methods such as lifeguard patrols, capture-tag-release and the electromagnetic shark shield, the positive implications it will have upon sharks and “non-target” wildlife is surely worth it. New South Wales has announced a trial for the barriers after a spate of shark attack fatalities with the hope of reducing both attacks and its environmental impact, something which is hoped will continue along the continent’s coastlines. No animal deserves to suffer a slow and painful death in their own environment and so it is these advancements in protection that are vital in protecting the future of our ocean habitats.

Something needs to change before the ecosystem does.

 

Image: Terry Goss (2006) 

Hope For Rare Porpoises in Mexico

As the small grey dorsal fins gently slice through the calm waters of San Felipe in Mexico, the relief and elation onboard the research ship, the R/V Ocean Starr, is unmistakeable. A mere four days into a 64 day-long survey into the abundance of the critically endangered vaquita population and two have already been spotted by a team of renowned scientists. It was a promising start and provides a glimmer of hope that this rare species can be saved.

The vaquita is a small porpoise and the world’s most endangered marine mammal. Found only in the Gulf of California in Mexico, with the smallest distribution of any other mammal species, this little cetacean is under imminent threat of extinction with only an estimated 100 remaining. The main threat they face is accidental entanglement in gillnets used by fishermen to catch shrimp, as once they become trapped they are unable to surface and eventually drown. However, sadly this is not a recent issue. Fifteen years ago, Peter Evans, Sea Watch Foundation’s Director, constructed a letter on behalf of the European Cetacean Society, urging the President of Mexico to take urgent action to address the issue of incidental capture in fishing gear and save the species before it is too late. It is something that has been affecting the population for a considerable amount of time and, as a result, has caused serious damage to this isolated species.

According to acoustic data collected by research teams between the years 2011 and 2014, there was a 30% per year decline in the number of vaquitas. Last year, an international panel of scientists warned of a decrease of 100 specimens over two years and indicated that by 2018, the vaquita could vanish altogether. This shocking information prompted the Mexican government to act in order to try and secure the survival of the species and, in April 2015, the President of Mexico Peña Nieto, announced an emergency two-year ban on the use of gillnets in the area known to be frequented by these cetaceans.

On the 26th September, “The Vaquita Expedition 2015” was launched by the Mexican government in order to obtain an estimate of the number of vaquitas at the beginning of the gillnet ban. Lasting 64 days, 13 scientists on board have been using both visual and acoustic methods to document the abundance of animals in areas once dominated by nets. The visual team are using six pairs of 25x binoculars known as “big eyes” to survey the distribution of vaquitas in waters between 20 and 50 metres deep, spotting them up to six miles away. It is vital that the equipment is able to see so far away as porpoise are shy and likely to react to the ship, and therefore close observation would be difficult and the resulting abundance estimates inconclusive. Acoustically, devices called CPODs (built by Nick Tregenza from Cornwall) are being used to harmlessly detect the high frequency clicks used by the vaquitas when finding food. 134 of these devices will be deployed in a grid in shallow water where the research ship is unable to go, so as to be able to examine a wider area and build up as much information as possible. Both acoustic and visual survey methods will be used so as to provide a more complete picture and allow the scientists to build up as precise a density estimate as possible for this very rare cetacean.

So far, over the first 20 days of the survey, due to end on the 3rd December 2015, 25 vaquitas have been spotted. Whilst some of these may be the same individuals seen on multiple occasions, these are promising observations, and at least demonstrate that the near-extinct cetacean is still surviving. With only one gillnet spotted in the exclusion zone, where 700 kilometres of nets were previously used, it also shows how vital the cooperation of the fishermen is to the protection of the species and indeed the importance of the support for those who once relied upon this method of fishing. It is of course crucial to note that the levelling off of or increase in the vaquita population is unlikely to be seen over the course of just the next two years. Even without the gill-net mortality rates, the time it takes for reproduction would only see a very small population growth over this period, and so ideally this short term ban will be permanently extended in the future. Nevertheless, at a time when so many of the world’s wild animals are under pressure simply to survive, it is most certainly a welcome step forward in endangered wildlife conservation.

 

Image: Paula Olson, NOAAhttp://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/porpoises/vaquita.html

US Navy Sonar Limitations To Help Save Cetaceans

Imagine this. You’re sitting in your house, enjoying a lovely and well deserved meal at your table with your friends and family when all of a sudden you’re overcome by a noise so deafening that you have no other choice but to run. Your head is pounding, you feel dizzy, your body is aching and all you can think of is getting out of there as quick as you can even though you have no idea where you’re going. When you finally escape you find yourself in an unfamiliar place without any of your friends, your family or your food. You’re lost, alone and in agony.

 You are a whale and you are one of thousands facing this ordeal every year due to the use of military sonar and explosives around the world.

In September 2015, the U.S Navy and the National Resources Defence Council came to a federal agreement placing restrictions on the use of military training exercises in primary marine mammal habited environments. The culmination of a 20 year long battle, until it expires in 2018 the new agreement means that the Navy must limit their use of sonar and explosive detonation off the coasts of Southern California and Hawaii; places renowned for their rich diversity of marine wildlife. Whereas in the past, they had the freedom to conduct training exercises at any time of the year, they will now have to cease all activity at times when marine populations are at their most vulnerable to ensure that as few are as affected as possible. Blue whales will no longer find themselves deafened as they use the Californian coast as part of their summer migration and Hawaii’s small and critical population of false killer whales won’t have to endure the agonising pain of sonar sound waves thundering towards them. Clearly, it’s a step in the right direction.

It may only be a very small percentage of the world’s oceans but for those animals likely to have suffered, it will make a significant difference. Whales and dolphins hunt, feed, navigate and escape predators using a form of biological sonar called echolocation and if this is disturbed by military sonar, it really does become a fight for survival. Not only are they at risk of being driven from their natural hunting grounds and migration patterns, they are also at risk of devastating physiological injuries as well. Research into the impact of sonar on cetaceans has revealed that, when exposed to high intensity sound waves many are susceptible to severe afflictions including decompression sickness, internal bleeding , ruptured tissues and in some cases even death. Painful, agonising and unnecessary suffering. The impact of sonar training on cetaceans can be catastrophic.

In 2014, between 5 and 8 beaked whales stranded along the coast of Crete and more recently, in March this year 3 beaked whales beached in Southern Guam. In both cases, sonar training has been confirmed to have occurred nearby. The U.S Navy itself has admitted that around 2000 whales and dolphins were likely to be impacted by their training exercises in Southern California and Hawaii. These are devastatingly high numbers in sensitive waters which, prior to the agreement, had been deemed by the judge overseeing the case as making “no sense given the size of the ocean area involved.” There’s a lot more ocean out there without needing to use vulnerable wildlife hotspots, places where the risk of severe casualties can be minimised and hopefully ended completely.

It might just be the start and there’s still a lot more ocean to protect but the fact that the U.S Navy is starting to recognise that cetaceans cannot simply be considered “collateral damage” is a success in itself. Indeed, they have been carrying out their own research into the effect of sonar on marine life and have apparently spent around $160 million in 2015 alone in doing so. Evidently, the Navy does care about it’s impact and whilst it has taken some time, hopefully this new agreement will result in fewer casualties and more understanding that the price of security does not need to come at the cost of the natural world.

 

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Stephen W. Rowe (2007)